Greens are now building a genuine base

Posted on May 26, 2014 by | 8 Comments

Deyika Nzeribe, chair of Manchester Green Party. Greens came second across Manchester in the local elections this week.

When looking at the Green Party result today, there are two important things to understand. The first is that the 2009 European election took place in the month after the expenses scandal. The second is that the UK lost many of its MEP seats in 2009, meaning it was harder to get each one.

Because of this reduction in seats, in the months before the 2009 Euro-poll, it looked inevitable that we would lose both our MEPs – not because we would get fewer votes than in the 2004 election, but because the same number of votes would not equate to a seat. Ironically, it was the Daily Telegraph who saved us from this fate. As they published, day after day, revelations of how MPs had abused the expenses system, the country worked itself into a frenzy. All across Britain, people of almost any political persuasion sought ways to punish the Westminster establishment.

It’s worth remembering too that this is the genesis of the current UKIP rise. Before the expenses scandal, they looked like they were going to be wiped out – two of their MEPs had been jailed for fraud, and they were generally seen as a joke – or, more importantly, they were generally ignored. They did much better out of that particular crisis than we did. But it saved our two MEPs.

There are other reasons to believe that 2009 was particularly good for Greens. It was the year of the Copenhagen climate conference and The Wave: the climate movement was at its peak. That Euro election was one of the worst votes for Labour in its history, after the press had turned against Brown, but without the risk that not voting Labour would allow a Tory government in. The election took place right after Fred Goodwin’s car had been set on fire, when people were viscerally angry about the banking collapse, but not yet debating long term solutions. This climate of rage at the establishment helped us hugely.

From then on, there were many who expected the Greens to do badly. As the long recession eclipsed concern for the environment and, more importantly, as the desire to get the Tories out replaced anger with Labour on the left, many a pundit proclaimed that the party was about to enter the doldrums.

The Lib Dems going into coalition helped a bit. But it’s worth remembering that around a third of Lib Dems prefer them to work with Tories than Labour. It’s worth remembering that much of the Labour strategy at the moment – from electing a wonkish middle class leader on – seems to be aimed at hoovering up the rest of those Lib Dem votes. It’s worth remembering that anger at Labour brings access to a much bigger pool of voters than does anger at the Lib Dems.

It is in this context that we should judge the state of the party in last night’s European and last week’s local election results. To keep our MEPs, we had to attract voters to us rather than have them fall into our lap because of anger at the political establishment. We had to get people to vote for us rather than just against everyone else. This required an ideological appeal rather than just being ‘someone else'; and it required such an appeal in the context of an Ofcom ruling which declared there to be four big parties, of which we were not one.

Faced with this challenge, the party took a gamble. It took the kind of risk that you need to take in order to grow out of a comfortable position. In 2009, we had focussed our campaigning in the South East and London, where we already had two MEPs. We had played a defensive game, and won both seats with comfortable margins, whilst missing out narrowly across much of the rest of the country. Greens never needed a national swing to get more seats, just a more even distribution of votes.

This time, despite struggling against a headwind, the party chose the tougher path. It put its resources not into just defending its two seats, but into attempting to win six (the Scottish party also worked hard for a seventh, but is an independent organisation with its own strategic decisions).

The fact that the national total for Greens is down, but that the number of seats is up is in part a product of this gamble paying off. It’s easier to get lots of votes in the same place, but that doesn’t add extra seats. It’s worth noting that, whilst the national vote share was down, the biggest falls were in London and the South East (where we already had MEPs with comfortable margins), as campaign resources were pulled out of these regions and poured into the next targets – South West, North West and Eastern in particular – where the vote respectively increased, and held steady. The payoff for this strategy – and for holding our nerve as it looked like we might lose both of our MEPs – is a third seat.

But it’s a product of something else too, something more important, long term. Since 2009, the party’s membership has doubled. It was, arguably, Bristol which granted Britain its newest Green MEP. The Bristol Greens have grown drastically in recent years, winning council seats where they had none, and becoming serious players in the city where they weren’t before. Bristol is relatively typical. Greens are now the opposition on Liverpool city council. We came second across Manchester, and picked up good votes in numerous cities across the country.

The point is this. In 2009, Greens were lucky to keep our two MEPs. They were in part delivered to us through astonishingly friendly last minute circumstance. This time, the MEPs were retained – and a new one elected, despite circumstances being much less friendly – through genuine growth in the party, through the development of roots in communities, and through a strategic decision which risked everything in order to break out of the South East bubble.

This tells us something else too. The people who voted Green in 2009 gave us little base to build on. They came from across the ideological spectrum (apart from the far right), and all that they had in common was that they were angry with the establishment parties and they didn’t want to support UKIP. This time, the votes were fought for and won one at a time. They were progressives voting for a clear ideological programme. Opinion polls before the election showed that they are overwhelmingly young, usually from social class C1 (lower middle class), and largely live in Housing Association or privately rented housing. In other words, they are the precariat. Anecdotally, the activist left and those involved in the student movement of 2010 turned out for us like they never have before.

Five years ago, we had the wind on our back. This time, it was blowing against us. Gaining ground in that context is hugely encouraging for the party. This gain is reflected in the local election results. Whilst the increase in council seats were not huge, the increase in vote in seats the party did not target and did little work in was remarkable – scoring 15% across all of Ealing, 10% across Hillingdon, 7% across Carlisle, 8% across Portsmouth, 13% across Manchester, 14% across Barnet, 13% across Reading. These, remember, are in first past the post council elections, mostly in seats Greens will have done no work in, often in the middle of two other parties squeezing. We also picked up our first seat in Belfast across a vast ward, giving us a good crack at a second Assembly seat in Northern Ireland next time. This is not to mention 20% across normal strongholds of Hackney, Islington, Lewisham, Oxford, and coming first, according to ballot box samples, across Brighton Pavillion.

In the past, we depended on pockets of support in the midst of vast deserts of nothing. Today, where we stand a candidate, we consistently get 5-10% of the vote rather than 1-3%, and often pick up 15%. Most remarkably of all, when I scoured local council websites late into the night to work out the above results, I found a Green candidate in the vast majority of wards I looked at, all the way from the far North West to the deep South East. Five years ago, undertaking the same exercise, it was a challenge to find any candidates in many of these places.

There are many great people who narrowly missed out in this election, and for them we should shed a tear. But let us too understand that, in this election, to get where we have, we needed to build a house out of rock. The winds of national politics huff and puff, and who knows what will happen next year, but the long term growth of the Green roots is remarkable. We are becoming the go-to party for people to the left of Labour. That brings with it not just an occasional vote, but a big activist base if it can be mobilised. And that is very encouraging indeed.

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8 Responses to “Greens are now building a genuine base”

  1. manchesterclimatemonthlyNo Gravatar
    May 26th, 2014 @ 7:15 pm

    Typo – “Before the expenses scandal, they looked like we were going to be wiped out – two of their MEPs had been jailed for fraud, and they were generally seen as a joke – or, more importantly, they were generally ignored.” – surely “like they were going to be wiped out”.
    And for what it is worth, it is very very disingenuous to say that they came second in Manchester. They stood in 32 wards, never came close to getting a seat. UKIP only stood in 14 wards, but got about the same number of votes, and almost snatched a ward from Labour.

  2. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    May 26th, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    @manchesterclimatemonthly – thanks re the typo, fixed.

    re coming second, I hadn’t realised that re UKIP. Interesting. However, my point is in part about infrastructure – the fact we had enough people to stand in every Manchester ward is part of the point. Yes, Labour were a distant first, but getting the second most votes is still second place, even if it delivers no seats.

  3. manchesterclimatemonthlyNo Gravatar
    May 26th, 2014 @ 9:36 pm
  4. Peter AllenNo Gravatar
    May 27th, 2014 @ 5:16 am

    Good on you for being so positive Adam

  5. Scott ReddingNo Gravatar
    May 27th, 2014 @ 10:00 am

    It’s not clear from this essay that there were four target regions in 2009 – London, SE, Eastern and the North West. It comes across as only in 2014 the party decided to try to break out of the “London/SE bubble.” What I recall from 2009 was that we were enjoying very favourable opinion polls (to the point of talking about 5-6 MEPs), and then everything tightened in the final fortnight. As well, I think that there was a bit of Joanne Lumley Factor in 2009, with her endorsement of Caroline Lucas for the SE on the Jonathan Ross Show. The media takes on a dominant narrative in each election. In 2009, rather than “the wind at our backs,” it worked against us (BNP breakthrough year). In 2010, it helped us (possible Green breakthrough in Brighton). In 2014, it worked against us again (UKIP UKIP UKIP). There are a few “exogenous” things that happened that helped us. I’d have liked to have seen a mention of the Lib Dems, re 2014. Their collapse helped Molly win a seat, and we didn’t cause their collapse. The Mike Nattrass/”An Independence from Europe” lot think that their candidate took enough votes off UKIP in the SW to let Molly in. He actually ran across to us at the West Mids count to tell us that. We didn’t cause that either. I think what we need to do is look at how the Bristol Greens have gone from 1 to 6 councillors rather quickly, and what specific things that the SW England campaign did that was different than the other regional campaigns.

  6. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    May 27th, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

    Scott – the polls before the 2009 election are here:

    the Telegraph published the first expenses story on the 8th of May, and then dripped them out after that. the 4 polls before the 8th (the poll out on the 10th would have been based on research before the 8th), our average score was 4%. In the 4 polls afterwards, our average score was 8.75, and it stayed around there…

    On regional targeting, well, I realise now that I’m picking at old disagreements, which I certainly didn’t mean to!

  7. Tom ChanceNo Gravatar
    June 25th, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    Adam, that pattern with polls turning in our favour a few weeks out is typical of PR elections. The same happens in every round of Greater London Authority elections. We barely register until out ground campaign gets going, election broadcasts go out, and people start to mention us to pollsters. I don’t think it was as much to do with expenses as you suggest, and concur with Scott’s reading of the external factors in those recent elections he mentions.

    Could you post some links about the “Opinion polls before the election [which[ showed that [Green voters] are overwhelmingly young, usually from social class C1 (lower middle class), and largely live in Housing Association or privately rented housing”?

    One of the things you might have remarked on is that Bristol Green Party has focused a lot of its efforts on local issues like blocking supermarkets, 20mph and pavement parking. They entered into a “rainbow coalition” cabinet with the independent Mayor, and have made some interesting and controversial decisions such as axing the “no evictions” bedroom tax policy (for, I think, good reasons).

    Another point of interest was that Molly won in the South West by travelling extensively around the region being very positive about core green issues like renewable energy and a new economic policy.

    In London several of our successful campaigns worked to win votes from typically-Lib Dem and Tory voters, playing on the worry of a 100% Labour council. Without those votes we’d have no cllrs in the capital. The successes were very much off the back of strong local community campaigns on issues like 20mph, air pollution, the living wage, planting trees, fracking, housing costs, saving a care home from demolition, and of course an effective ground campaign. In Lewisham, the Greens held the Brockley seat in a very tough fight during a time when their most visible and successful campaign was, again, on 20mph. They beat, in most wards (possibly all, I’d have to double-check), a very visible and energetic “left of Labour” party who get regular press called Lewisham People Before Profit, who were campaigning on TTIP, anti-cuts and anti-privatisation, but failed yet again to win any seats.

    I mention these partly because I think we should always pay more attention to local details and circumstances, and partly because those specific examples suggest your “left of Labour” characterisation doesn’t quite capture where our vote came from.

    What is very interesting is the sustained polling figures we are seeing at the moment, because these figures normally tail off much more quickly. What is behind that?


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